Archives for January 2018

God Still Transforming Lives of Young People

A group of young people pray together after a Christian City Church service in Toronto last month. Christopher Katsarove, The Globe and Mail

“Until recently, Aimee Burke was a cartoon of her generation,” begins the news article in The Globe and Mail, one of the largest newspapers in Canada. “She partied a lot and was partial to coke. Her hookups comprised partners both male and female. She was unhappy.”

Aimee is a millennial hair stylist in Toronto. “Her life began to change,” Eric Andrew-Gee reports, “with the appearance of an unusual tattoo. … About two years ago, a client at her salon flashed a wrist inked with an image of Christ. When Ms. Burke asked about it, the tattooed client said she belonged to a new Toronto church.”

After having confirmed that she could attend in ripped jeans, Aimee visited the church. “I’m pretty sure I went to the service hungover from the night before,” she recalled. But as the service wore on, she found herself weeping. “I just felt less empty.”

“Everyone was within about 10 years of my age and I was 24 years old at the time. They were talking about God, but they looked like people I could party with,” Ms. Burke said. “I felt like I could be myself right away.”

This is the kind of faith-inspiring story that you love to read about — especially in a secular newspaper in Canada, a country where less than 25 percent attend church on a monthly basis.  

“As the Christians would say, I’ve surrendered over my life,” Burke said. “I do everything. I pray in the morning, I pray at night, I read my Bible every day… Now I’m waiting for marriage. I’ve been sober for almost two years.”

The church attendance numbers are not on the upswing for young men and women in Aimee’s age demographic — neither in Canada nor the United States. Nevertheless, testimonies like Ms. Burke’s appearing in the newspaper should remind us that God is always at work. The Holy Spirit is transforming lives — even among young people!

“I think people are looking for something to believe in,” Ms. Burke offered, “even if it’s just themselves.”

The church’s upbeat, easy going style attracted many of the parishioners at its west end campus.

“The big thing here is people come and they don’t feel pressured to be anything other than who they are,” said Jonathan Li, 30. “It’s more about having people to do life together.

“I think people are a lot lonelier these days, even with social media. … I think there’s a false sense of connectedness there.”

Aimee Burke is glad the church met her where she was. At the church, she felt like she could be herself, without feeling “self-condemned,” she said. All the jokes about saying Hail Marys when she swears at work are worth it, Ms. Burke insists. “This is going to sound really Christian-y,” she said, “but it felt like the chains came off of me.”

Further good news comes from Britain, where recent surveys have shown

Churches inspire young people to become Christian, a study suggests. Photo by David Davies.

that 13 percent of people between the ages of 11 and 18 are practicing Christians who attend church, and that 21 percent of this age group consider themselves active followers of Jesus. This is more than double the result of a 2006 survey, which found that only six percent of teens attended church.

Jimmy Dale, the Church of England’s national youth evangelism officer, said his team had been “shocked” by the results. “What is really exciting for us is that there is this warmth and openness that we are seeing among young people — they are really open to faith,” he said.Further good news comes from Britain, where recent surveys have shown that 13 percent of people between the ages of 11 and 18 are practicing Christians who attend church, and that 21 percent of this age group consider themselves active followers of Jesus. This is more than double the result of a 2006 survey, which found that only six percent of teens attended church.

Surprisingly, one of the most influential factors in the conversion of young people in the survey was visits to churches or cathedrals, identified by 13 percent of the respondents. The Bishop of Worcester, John Inge, who is the lead bishop for churches and church buildings, said: “This shows the power of church buildings — they are powerful for all sorts of reasons. They give a sense of stability, and also the sense that the Christian faith has inspired people to build these extraordinary buildings.” (Of course, Britain has the advantage over us there, with 42 cathedrals, many of which are as much as 1,000 years old.)

In addition, one in five said reading the Bible had been important, 17 percent said going to a religious school had had an impact and 14 percent said a spiritual experience was behind their Christianity. A further 13 percent identified prayer as a key factor. “Things which we would class as old hat methods are some of the more effective ways,” added Mr. Dale.

In the midst of sometimes discouraging cultural news, it is heartening to note that in places with much lower Christian discipleship than the United States, God is still actively working to transform lives and call people to follow him. As the song says, “God is on the move!” Will we join him in his mission?

Unity or Truth?

Many see the conflict currently raging in The United Methodist Church as a contest between unity and truth. Is it more important to follow what we believe to be the truth or to stay united as a denomination?

There are both progressives and conservatives fighting on the basis of allegiance to the truth. Many conservatives believe that the Bible clearly teaches an understanding of human sexuality that reserves sexual expression for the context of marriage between one man and one woman. That is the truth, as we see it — God’s unchanging will for human flourishing. And we believe in standing firm for that truth. We believe the church should teach that truth and advocate for it in the culture. We believe the denomination should clearly state that truth and not waffle or waver. And if worst came to worst and the denomination refused to maintain the truth, we would find ourselves compelled to depart for another church whose beliefs lined up with what we believe the Bible teaches.

Many progressives believe that the Bible teaches a different truth — or at least that the Bible doesn’t prohibit a different truth. They believe that sexual expression can be found to be equally holy and fulfilling between persons of the same gender as of those of an opposite gender. They believe that denying the possibility of sexual relationships to same-sex couples is a violation of how God created them. As such, the church must be encouraged or forced to change its teaching to allow for maximum self-realization for persons with same-sex attractions, as well as those with opposite-sex attractions. Progressives believe in standing firm for this truth. They advocate for it strenuously. They stage demonstrations and other forms of protest. And in the final analysis, if the church’s rules contradict the truth as they see it, they are willing to violate the church’s rules, sacrificing unity in order to abide by the truth as they see it.

Both groups value truth above unity. Where living in unity as a church would compromise their understanding of the truth, both groups say No Compromise.

There are others who value unity of the church above a commitment to a certain understanding of the truth — at least with regard to the church’s teaching about sexuality. Some believe that the only way to resolve the difference of opinion over sexuality is for the church to continue arguing and discussing the merits of the various understandings of truth. Eventually, they believe, the real truth will become evident. Until that time comes, they believe the church must stay together in order to have the greatest impact on the world in which we live.

Some in the unity group believe that homosexual relationships are permitted by Scripture, but they are willing to wait until the majority of the church becomes convinced of that fact. They are willing to put up with contradictory opinions existing in the same church with the hope that conservatives will eventually see the light and come over to their perspective. They remember how conservatives used to be against divorced clergy, but now seem willing to permit it. In the same way, they hope conservative opinion will “evolve” to supporting same-sex relationships.

Persons in the unity group maintain that the biggest impact our church can have on our society is to show that it is possible to live together and work together, even with drastically different understandings of the truth. I would maintain that our impact would be dramatically weakened by the fact that we cannot agree on what we are promoting. As Paul said, “Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (I Corinthians 14:7-8).

It seems like the “local option” proposal would be perfectly positioned for the unity group. Allow everyone to act in keeping with his or her conscience, and we can all live together in one church. What could be more reasonable than that?

This approach, however, fails to reckon with those who place truth above unity. While unity may be an important value for these groups, truth is an even higher value. Conservatives will be unable to compromise with the truth in order to allow parts of the church to support what we believe is contrary to God’s will as taught in Scripture. And progressives will be unable to compromise with the truth in order to allow parts of the church to engage in what they believe is sinful discrimination against persons. (You can read a well-written explanation of this progressive point of view on this blog by Rev. Charlie Parker here.)

If the local option were to be enacted, there would be an exodus of conservatives from the church, and the progressives would redouble their advocacy efforts to convince everyone to buy into their understanding. That ongoing advocacy pressure would continue to drive out conservatives, until the church would have only progressives left in it. At that point, it would be easy for the church to mandate that everyone must support and affirm same-sex relationships.

In its quest for unity through the local option, the church would in fact ensure the division of the church through the departure of conservatives. That would indeed bring about unity through the “purification” of the church in eliminating the conservative viewpoint. This has already happened in some annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction, where conservatives have been marginalized to the point that their voices are inconsequential.

One way or another, any resolution to the conflict in the church will entail some form of separation. The only questions to be resolved are: 1) How will that separation take place? and 2) Will there be any remaining relationship or connection between those who have separated?

Under the first two sketches that have been offered by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops, the separation would take place by those who could no longer live with the policies and practices of the church deciding to leave in a piecemeal, disorganized fashion. Neither sketch envisions a continuing relationship between those who leave and the church they have left behind.

The third sketch, a multi-branch proposal, envisions an orderly choice by annual conferences, local congregations, and bishops/clergy as to what part of the church they want to belong to. On matters of sexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons, there would be separation between the branches. But this sketch envisions an ongoing relationship and shared participation between the branches to enable ministries that all agree on to continue.

The Christian Church has adapted and survived and thrived despite innumerable splits, divisions, and schisms over the last 2,000 years. God’s Church is not dependent upon us necessarily getting it right. There will always be believers who will unite together to worship the one, true God and to live out the ministry of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we work toward a way forward, my hope is that we can find a way that does the least damage to the church and its ministry, and to the people who make up the church. In the end, our understanding of the truth will become the most important determining factor about where we individually end up.

Please lift up the Commission on a Way Forward in your prayers this week, as they meet today through Saturday.

Mennonites Divide Over Sexuality

The Lancaster Mennonite Conference, largest of the Mennonite Church’s 25 conferences, has ended its 46-year affiliation with America’s top Anabaptist denomination. According to stories in Christianity Today and Mennonite World Review, this decision was more than two years in the making.

In 2015 the Lancaster Conference’s churches were encouraged to enter into a time of discernment about whether or not to remain with the Mennonite Church. About ten percent of the conference’s 179 churches engaged in an extended discernment process, with eight of the 17 churches deciding to remain within the Mennonite Church. Those congregations joined the nearby Atlantic Coast Conference.

At the same time, about 29 congregations from outside the Lancaster Conference joined the conference, from as far away as Oregon and Hawaii. The congregations leaving the Mennonite Church represent about one-sixth of the denomination’s membership.

The split was sparked by the licensing for ministry of Theda Good, a lesbian pastor in a committed relationship, by the Mountain States Mennonite Conference in 2014. That licensing was not recognized by the national Mennonite Church, but neither was the Mountain States Conference disciplined by the national church. The Mennonite Confession of Faith says that marriage is “a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”

In response, conservative Mennonites set up a new network called Evana to promote traditional values and spiritual renewal. At the time, they hoped 100 churches would join the movement. Two years later, nearly 180 congregations have decided to withdraw.

Mennonite church polity is different from United Methodist polity, in that it is congregational in government and there is no denominational trust clause holding the property with the denomination. So it was relatively easy for churches to withdraw, once they had made that decision.

Some have pointed to the Mennonite Church as a denomination that was not consumed with battles over same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBTQ persons. But just like the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ, the Mennonites have experienced division, as well.

It is interesting to note the parallels with United Methodism. For over 25 years, there have been isolated examples of UM annual conferences that ordained openly homosexual persons to ministry. Sometimes, those ordinations were overturned by the church’s judicial process. More times than not, there was no discipline for the wayward annual conference, and the ordination was allowed to stand. Since 2012 the emphasis has been on clergy performing same-sex marriages or unions. A few resulted in the clergy being disciplined (none severely), but in most cases the offense was either ignored or celebrated by the annual conferences involved. The disobedience of our church order reached a culmination in 2016 with the election of a married lesbian clergy, Karen Oliveto, as bishop in the Western Jurisdiction.

In addition to the long-standing renewal groups (Good News, Confessing Movement, UMAction), evangelical United Methodists in 2016 formed a new network (the Wesleyan Covenant Association) designed to promote traditional values and spiritual renewal.

The Mennonite experience also shows what might happen as a result of the proposals coming from the Council of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward. Some of those proposals involve expanded jurisdictions or branches with more fluid geographical boundaries, which would allow evangelical congregations from across the country to band together in a common framework of ministry. Other proposals envision parts of The United Methodist Church departing from the denomination and forming new independent bodies to promote ministry from a particular perspective. We know these approaches are indeed possible because they have been done by other denominations, most recently now by the Mennonites.

The Mennonite experience illustrates once again that organizational church unity is threatened by the widely divergent perspectives on homosexuality. There are many United Methodists who value organizational unity more than theological agreement. But there is a significant number of United Methodists for whom a certain level of theological agreement is a necessary precondition for organizational unity. For those United Methodists, the disagreement over marriage and sexuality, as well as the denomination’s inability to enforce its standards, have made organizational unity nearly impossible to sustain.